An unknown story that needed to be told

Film: A United Kingdom

Director: Amma Asante (Belle, 2014)

Writer: Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky): from the book Colour Bar by Susan Williams.

Starring: David Oyelowo (Selma, 2014), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, 2014), Jack Davenport (Kingsman: The Secret Service, 2015).

Plot: Serente Kharma (Oyelowo) is the Prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana). In 1948 he meets and falls in love with London office worker Ruth Williams (Pike). Their interracial relationship is opposed by both of their families. Their subsequent marriage provokes extreme reaction from both the British and South African governments. To be together, they must defy apartheid and imposed exile.

Asante, a female British director of Ghanian heritage, has said she wants “to make pieces of entertainment and art that mean something.” She succeeds with her latest film.

Neither I nor The Current Mrs Feeney knew anything about Serente Kharma’s story; I suspect most people who go to see the film will be equally ignorant about this pretty shameful piece of British colonial history.

The racism and intolerance of ‘the other’ that it highlights are, sadly, still topical (in fact, intolerance seems to be on the increase). I thought that, in one key scene where Kharma addresses his tribe on the impossibility of separating his duty to his people from his love for his wife, there were also uncanny echoes of the British crown’s abdication crisis in the 30s.

At least one reviewer had criticised the film’s portrayal of Ruth Williams as a rather silly and naive woman; that’s not what I saw. Pike presents a character who is much stronger and more politically aware than that.

Oyelowo, who could be described as having rehearsed for this role with his portrayal of Martin Luther King in Selma, is simply superb as a man who keeps his integrity and his dignity as he is battered by the competing forces of tradition and progress.

Some of the dialogue is undeniably cheesy. But overall, this is a well-crafted story that deserves, now of all times, to be told. I especially like the way Asante contrasts 1940s London – colours so muted as to be almost monotone – with a sunburnt Bechuanaland of searing ochres and oranges.

****

Cinema 2016: the films I’ve seen this year and what I thought of them.

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